Last month, an improbable Internet exchange inspired many who noticed it to reconsider what's possible when debating politics online. It began when MIT professor Scott Aaronson published a blog post on a sexual harassment controversy. A predictably heated argument ensued in the comments section. Then, 171 comments into the thread, Aaronson achieved a breakthrough: He posted a reply so personal, vulnerable and powerful that it transformed the character of the conversation. And all sides emerged better able to see one another's humanity.
The comment that begat this small Internet miracle wasn't perfect. Neither were the responses to it–as ever online, some needless cruelty and lack of charity followed.
But Aaronson and his interlocutors did transform an obscure, not-particularly-edifying debate into a broad, widely read conversation that encompassed more earnest, productive, revelatory perspectives than I'd have thought possible. The conversation has already captivated a corner of the Internet, but deserves wider attention, both as a model of public discourse and a window into the human experience. It began with the most personal thing that the professor had ever publicly shared.
Fear and Self-Loathing in Puberty
At age 12, as other boys experienced more typical variations on puberty and attraction to girls, Aaronson developed feelings of guilt, fear and self-loathing that would last more than a decade. He had crushes just like his peers. But he was terrified "that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison," he wrote. "And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how."
Whenever he desired someone, he reproached himself for not having any right to his feelings. At undergraduate orientations or workshops to prevent sexual-harassment, he reacted differently than male peers who were less credulous, less over-scrupulous and better at understanding ambiguous social dynamics. "With their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that 'might be' sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault," he wrote, "I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year."
Without hard rules, he felt a moral duty to error on the side of extreme caution, to never act toward women in a way that might be considered patriarchal or oppressive.
"My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did," he wrote. "Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness." This self-loathing caused him to have constant suicidal thoughts and to pursue other radical remedies. "At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones)," he wrote, "because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: My case genuinely stumped him."
When I read about the moment of anguish when the author begged to be chemically castrated, I flashed back to guilt felt by some over-scrupulous Catholics I knew in my youth and a certain quote from the gospels: "...but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." What I'd never personally encountered is a young man whose over-scrupulous was a response to radical feminism.
The author writes:
Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.
Andrea Dworkin once wrote, "Only when manhood is dead—and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it—only then will we know what it is to be free.” Most men read that without imagining they're duty bound to literally destroy their manhood. But not all men, I was surprised to learn from others who shared Aaronson's experience. In time, as he grew older and achieved some career success, his newfound confidence made it easier for him to interact with women without assuming that they loathed him, and in time he even asked some women on dates, "despite not being totally certain that my doing so would pass muster with a committee of radfems chaired by Andrea Dworkin," he wrote. "This to-my-mind 'defiance' of feminism is the main reason why I was able to enjoy a few years of a normal, active dating life, which then led to meeting the woman who I married."
Contrary to what you might expect, he shared all this not to argue against feminism, but to explain (with a perhaps unavoidable hint of self-congratulation) why he had such a hard time embracing it. "The whole time I was struggling, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away," he wrote.
I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds. There are only individual women and men trying to play the cards they’re dealt, and the confluence of their interests sometimes leads to crappy outcomes. No woman 'owes' male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; everyone’s free choice demands respect. That I managed to climb out of the pit with my feminist beliefs mostly intact, you might call a triumph of abstract reason over experience.
He proclaims himself 97 percent on board with feminism, citing his "ironclad commitment to women’s reproductive choice and affirmative action, women’s rights in the developing world, and getting girls excited about science," and his "horror at rape and sexual assault and my compassion for the victims of those heinous crimes." While his coming-of-age story struck me as a valuable, unfamiliar experience to learn about in its own right, it serves, in his blog comment, as context for why he isn't 100 percent on board with feminism as he understands it.
"As much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my 'male privilege'—my privilege!—is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience," he writes. He goes on to dispute the narrative "that women are being kept out of science by the privileged, entitled culture of shy male nerds," as if it is "worse than the culture of male doctors or male filmmakers or the males of any other profession," adding, "from my perspective, it serves only to shift blame from the Neanderthals and ass-grabbers onto some of society’s least privileged males, the ones who were themselves victims of bullying and derision, and who acquired enough toxic shame for appealing to their shame to be an effective way to manipulate their behavior."
He concludes by acknowledging the reality of traumas that women routinely face, positing that being a rape victim, for example, is far worse than what he had to overcome, but that one difference is that "the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone... There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault." As an account of how life experiences shaped the way one individual perceives an ongoing debate, this comment was extraordinarily enlightening. And its vulnerability inspired many insightful responses from both self-identified nerds with similar experiences and feminists with thoughtful critiques.*
"On Nerd Entitlement"
The most widely-discussed rejoinder to Scott Aaronson's blog comment was published in The New Statesmen by Laurie Penny, a prolific journalist and author who identifies herself as a feminist and a geek. She begins by noting that she, too, found it harrowing to be a shy, nerdy teen with crippling social anxiety. "I was very clever and desperate for a boyfriend or, failing that, a fuck," she explained. "I would have done anything for one of the boys I fancied to see me not as a sad little boffin freak but as a desirable creature, just for a second. I hated myself and had suicidal thoughts. I was extremely lonely, and felt ugly and unloveable."
She battled severe anorexia and nearly died. And then, when she turned to "the life of the mind" as an escape, "I found sexism standing in my way. I am still punished every day by men who believe that I do not deserve my work as a writer and scholar."
Her first critique of his post is that he is mistaken to blame feminism for his travails:
I do not intend for a moment to minimise Aaronson's suffering. Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be. I have seen responses to nerd anti-feminism along the lines of "being bullied at school doesn't make you oppressed." Maybe it's not a vector of oppression in the same way, but it’s not nothing.
It burns. It takes a long time to heal. Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for "shy, nerdy men." Patriarchy is to blame for that. It is a real shame that Aaronson picked up Andrea Dworkin rather than any of the many feminist theorists and writers who manage to combine raw rage with refusal to resort to sexual shame as an instructive tool. Weaponised shame - male, female or other - has no place in any feminism I subscribe to. Ironically, Aronson actually writes a lot like Dworkin - he writes from pain felt and relived and wrenched from the intimate core of himself, and because of that his writing is powerfully honest, but also flawed. The thing is that the after effects of trauma tend to hang around long after the stimulus is past.
She goes on to argue that Aaronson makes a leap from his own, relatively unusual story of teenage misery "to a universal story of why nerdy men are in fact among the least privileged men out there, and why holding those men to account for the lack of representation of women in STEM areas—in the most important fields both of human development and social mobility right now, the places where power is being created and cemented right now—is somehow unfair."
The past 30 years have witnessed what she calls "a major and specific reversal of social fortunes," explaining:
Two generations of boys who grew up at the lower end of the violent hierarchy of toxic masculinity—the losers, the nerds, the ones who were afraid of being creeps—have reached adulthood and found the polarity reversed... they're the ones with the power and the social status. Science is a way that shy, nerdy men pull themselves out of the horror of their teenage years. That is true. That is so. But shy, nerdy women have to try to pull themselves out of that same horror into a world that hates, fears and resents them because they are women, and to a certain otherwise very intelligent sub-set of nerdy men, the category 'woman' is defined primarily as 'person who might or might not deny me sex, love and affection.'
She insists upon a distinction between possessing privilege and being vulnerable to suffering:
Hi there, shy, nerdy boys.
Your suffering was and is real. I really fucking hope that it got better, or at least is getting better. At the same time, I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright.
Privilege doesn't mean you don't suffer, which, I know, totally blows.
She asks Scott Aaronson to consider that she grew up anxious and suicidal, then "had to put up with structural misogyny" as well. "This is why Silicon Valley is fucked up," she asserts. "It's built and run by some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least. People whose received trauma makes them disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression. People who don't want to hear that there is anyone more oppressed than them, who definitely don't want to hear that maybe women and people of colour had to go through the hell of nerd puberty as well, because they haven't recovered from their own appalling nerdolescence. People who definitely don’t want to hear that, smart as they are, there might be basic things about society that they haven’t understood, because they have been prevented from understanding by the very forces that caused them such pain."
Are Nerds 'Privileged' or Not?
One of the most widely discussed responses to Laurie Penny came from Scott Alexander, another blogger who is both zealously committed to most feminist political goals and highly critical of Internet feminism's rhetoric, in part because "getting exposed to feminist shaming was part of what made my adolescence miserable."
He objects to the notion that nerds are "some of the most privileged people in the world," at one point analogizing them to Jews, a group widely acknowledged to be both successful in remunerative, medium-to-high-prestige fields, and also harmed by widespread prejudice, antagonism, and structural oppression (in other societies where Jews excelled professionally if not in America today). "If all nerds were born with blue dots on their heads, and the blue-dotters were bullied in school, cast negatively in the media, assumed to be as ravenous beasts hungry for innocent women, and denounced as 'entitled' any time they overcame all this to become successful," he writes, "would anybody deny that blue-dotters suffered from structural oppression? Wouldn’t the people who talked about how clearly blue-dotters are entitled dudebros in the tech industry be thought of the same way as someone who said Jews were greedy parasites in the banking industry?"
In his experience, he writes, "feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life," citing an awful collection of images that are hard to distinguish from anti-Semitic cartoons mixed in to underscore his point. (All together now: #not-all-feminists do this—nor most, I'd add.) He adds, "there are a couple different definitions of what exactly structural oppression is, but however you define it, I feel like people who are at much higher risk of being bullied throughout school, are portrayed by the media as disgusting and ridiculous, have a much higher risk of mental disorders, and are constantly told by mainstream society that they’re ugly and defective kind of counts."
Before concluding, he disputes that women are structurally excluded from "the life of the mind," and argues that insofar as they're underrepresented in certain hard sciences, nerdy men are not plausibly to blame. "Women are now 33% more likely than men to earn college degrees and women get higher grades in college than men do. They also get well above half of all master’s degrees, and just a slice over half of all Ph.Ds... Their likelihood of becoming professors is nicely predicted by the percent of degrees they earn at a couple decade interval. The articles about the world of higher education now all have titles like Missing Men or Why Are Men Falling Behind," he writes. Meanwhile, women in Penny's demographic group, "twenty-something and childless, out-earn their male counterparts by almost ten cents on the dollar," he says, and "women earn 55% of science degrees nowadays. They are somewhat overrepresented even in some 'hard' sciences like biology, but overwhelmingly so in the social sciences. Over seventy-five percent of psychology majors are female—a disproportion which blows out of the water the comparatively miniscule 60-40 disproportion favoring men in mathematics."
...by late high school, the gap between men and women in math and programming is already as large as it will ever be. Yes, it’s true that only 20 – 23% of tech workers are women. But less than twenty percent of high school students who choose to take the AP Computer Science test are women.
Nothing that happens between twelfth grade and death decreases the percent of women interested in computer science one whit... I don’t want to get into a drawn out inborn-ability versus acculturation fight. I want to say that whether we attribute this to inborn ability or to acculturation, the entire gender gap has been determined in high school if not before. If anything, women actually gain a few percentage points as they enter Silicon Valley. What the heck do high schoolers know about whether Silicon Valley culture is sexist or not?...The entire case for Silicon Valley misogyny driving women out of tech is a giant post hoc ergo propter hoc."
To persuade Alexander and those who think like him that they're wrong on this point would require rebutting the claim that the gap in STEM fields where men outnumber women is fully present before anyone is exposed to workplace culture (or alternatively, offering proof that nerd culture victimizes women as early as high school).
One female commenter on the post sagely warns against generalized explanations. "People are talking past one another on discrimination in tech partly because it varies so much by culture/company," she posits. "When I worked at a small non-software company and was the only woman on the engineering team," she explained, "I continually struggled with bro-culture, not being taken seriously, people trying to push me into fluffy design work, etc. Now that I work at Google there are few such issues. So from one side it can look like flagrant dismissal of very glaring problems, from the other like making mountains out of molehills, when really the people involved are working in very different environments."
Is an Even Better Conversation Possible?
As I read these three essays, along with commentary by many other participants in the conversation (which is too sprawling, rich, and complicated to summarize here), I felt blessed to have stumbled on brilliant, earnest individuals willing to share their life experiences and insights, all in hopes of improving the world. Since we can live together more easily when we understand one another's perspectives, these exchanges alone brought real gains—for the individuals involved, to be sure, but I suspect that their readers will gain even more. The intensely painful effect that a strain of feminism had on Aaronson may render him unable to fully appreciate that movement's value to its members, and the degree to which it is intended to speak to and benefit a close-knit community, not to affect outsiders. Similarly, feminists who've suffered particularly intense sexism and found solace, insight or strength in that movement may never fully understand or empathize with the complicated, varied, at times negative effects it has on some outsiders. But readers without strong personal reactions to movement feminism can dispassionately glean insights about the communities that we build, communities that exclude us, and how to negotiate such boundaries.
Admittedly, understanding one another's viewpoints only takes us so far. Aaronson, Penny, and Alexander also have what are ultimately empirical disputes about whether women in society, and specifically in tech, face more overall obstacles, and if so, whether men in tech are to blame, generally speaking. Empathy won't resolve those disputes. But perhaps we needn't resolve them.
What if everyone involved in this conversation is ill-served by the present state of public discourse? Together, Aaronson, Penny, Alexander, their many sharp commenters, and myriad other bloggers who weighed in on these subjects possess much of the knowledge needed to help nerds of both genders and women in STEM fields to understand the roots of needless crossed signals and mistrust and to transcend them. It's striking to observe how many significant goals were shared by most everyone participating in the conversation: to prevent any young person from being suicidally anxious or guilt-ridden about normal sexual desire; to understand bygone traumas that shape present attitudes; to identify and eliminate sexist barriers to entry in the sciences, tech, and elsewhere.
Everyone seemed eager for solutions.
Yet even as they labored to better understand one another, to be charitable and compassionate while reliving past trauma, and to articulate disagreements in an intellectually honest fashion, their focus kept returning to relative virtue and blame.
Who has what degree of privilege? Whose bygone trauma is most exonerating? To what degree are white male nerds guilty of oppressing women in STEM? To what degree are feminist activists and commentators guilty of oppressing nerds? They talked to one another as if whoever was found to possess the most traumatic background or smallest degree of group privilege would win the day, not because any of them chose such metrics, but because all sense that they're inescapable. They seem to confer rhetorical and political power in our time, so even writers who regard them as creating perverse incentives wind up returning to them.
This focus distracts from problem-solving.
In my view, the "privilege" framework, as described by Peggy McIntosh in her seminal essay, is one of many useful frameworks for understanding the world. It's important for people—whites and men, college graduates, women, U.S. citizens—to be cognizant of unearned advantages, and to identify and remedy unfairnesses that result. But if an omniscient being told us the precise degree of absolute and relative privilege possessed by nerds of both genders, feminists, and women in STEM—giving group averages as well as individual privilege scores for all—and if accurate trauma scores were available for groups and individuals too, what good would that do? Would that resolve any useful real world debate? Would it suggest any certain answer to the problems that confront us?
It would not.
While useful when used properly, the privilege framework, as overused now in public discourse, is an obstacle to dialogue and understanding more often than it is an asset. What people mean when invoking "privilege" varies dramatically, adding imprecision to exchanges that unfold with buzzwords rather than plain language and specific claims. And like "structural oppression," which also shape-shifts enough in its actual usage to permit all manner of rhetorical imprecision and mischief, the privilege framework makes many conversations much less accessible to the majority of people who aren't acculturated into academic social-justice jargon.
Even when these rhetorical obstacles are overcome, there is no faster way to short-circuit cooperation than treating overall degree-of-privilege and degree-of-victimization as vital questions to adjudicate before identifying or addressing specific problems.
I hope that male nerds, female nerds, feminists, STEM workers, and all sorts of other wonderful people continue to write brave, intellectually honest essays that set forth formative experiences, glean useful insights from them, and engage one another's ideas—and that the unfairly disadvantaged are successful in winning attention and reform. While the uglier features of Internet discourse make intensely personal, experience-based conversations of this sort difficult and fraught, the medium also enables the best exchanges, however rare, to draw in far more voices and disseminate them more widely than was possible in an analog world.
But the next time that so many interlocutors agree on broad matters of huge importance—helping young men and women to navigate gender relations; rooting out sexism as an important, ongoing project—I hope the intellectual environment is such that they spend no time arguing over whose traumas were most intense. I hope the conversation explores how people with such different perspectives might better achieve shared goals rather than how they might best assign blame.
*This being the Internet, there were also responses that were strikingly uncharitable. For example, Amanda Marcotte paraphrased Scott Aaronson's blog post as follows: "Having to explain my suffering to women when they should already be there, mopping my brow and offering me beers and blow jobs, is so tiresome."